Welcome to October – the city is getting chilly, but the politics are heating up. Fittingly, this month we’re highlighting a few neo-Shakespearean plays about British monarchs – as well as a couple of well reviewed lead performances from actors more familiar from the screen.
Four- and five-star reviews greeted what Paul Taylor (Independent) called “Laurie Sansom’s thrillingly authoritative production of Rona Munro’s brilliant, myriad-minded and mood-ranging trilogy”, which tackles “the chronic psychological effects on self and family of a Scottish monarch’s inherently dangerous relationship with his lords”.
Praise for acting Taylor judged “superlative” was universal, with Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph) declaring the trilogy “ensemble theatre at its finest…sealed in its perfection by the performances”.
Henry Hitchings (ES) found James McArdle’s James I “captivating”. Cavendish was affected by Andrew Rothney’s James II, “boyish and winning” despite “boundary-blurring nightmares of childhood trauma”, and found Jamie Sives “wickedly amusing as the cavalier, spendthrift James III”.
Mark Valencia (What’s on Stage) highlighted Stephanie Hyam as the “wittily played” wives of both James I and II, and “a bravura performance” from Mark Rowley as William Doug in James I. Hitchings found the story of James III “lit up” by a “commanding and witty” Sofie Gråbøl” as his Danish wife.
Hitchings felt “all three are meaty” but that the first is “the pick” of the plays. Valencia thought the second “the weakest” and queried the writing’s “theatrical ambition”. He nevertheless judged the whole “a vivid theatrical epic” due to this “five-star production”. More typically, Hitchings praised the script’s “fierce immediacy” and judged the whole “a major success” offering “a muscular view of nationalism as well as resonant, gripping entertainment”. Cavendish felt the plays “leave the competition, namely Shakespeare’s Henry VI cycle, standing,” and Taylor simply concluded “Go.”
Runs to Oct 29 – limited availability, but day seats available
Electra – Old Vic, 4-star average
Eight of nine pro reviewers gave four or five stars to what Michael Coveney (What’s On Stage) judged a “swift and powerful” production of what Henry Hitchings called “Frank McGuinness’s lucid version” of Sophocles’ tragedy.
Cavendish dedicated most of his review to Kristin Scott Thomas’s “tour de force” lead, which “rewrites our understanding of her capabilities”. Demetrious Metheou (Arts Desk) described “a woman in perpetual mourning: gaunt, eyes sunken,” with her dress “tattered and grim”, yet remaining “proud, determined, stubborn, less a wailer than an agitator”. Hitchings praised her “passion and a fierce dynamism” and “eloquent precision” as “wild shrieks and bursts of unlikely humour punctuate her restless prowling”. Taylor enjoyed her “uncanny psychological penetration and disturbed and disturbing charisma” and Cavendish found her “thrillingly unnerving”.
While Cavendish thought the male characters “underused” by Sophocles, Michael Billington (Guardian) felt Ian Rickson’s production gave other characters’ viewpoints “due weight”. Among individual performances highlighted were a “wonderful” and “vivid” Clytemnestra from Diana Quick, Liz White’s “pointedly wrought” Chrysothemus and an “excellent” Jack Lowden as Orestes.
Paul Taylor also praised the design’s “eloquently elemental desolation”, while Coveney described “the sinister thrum of P J Harvey’s music” and Dominic Cavendish found the resulting ambience “ancient and abstract” with an “atmosphere of heat and dust”.
Matheou praised “a fantastically rounded and grounded Electra”. Hitchings felt Scott Thomas “confirms not just her charisma but also her psychological shrewdness and versatility” and Coveney called it “a new peak in her career”. Taylor declared the whole “an evening of unalloyed magnificence”.
Runs to Dec 20
Fully Committed – Menier Theatre, 4-star average
More diverse threes to fives met this birthday revival of the single-hander that established the Menier.
Henry Hitchings felt Becky Mode’s 1999 comedy shows the playwright “delight[ing] in illustrating the degree to which a sense of entitlement stems from insecurity”. Further, she is “wittily served by director Mark Setlock” who played the role ten years ago, and whose current production is “the perfect vehicle” for “hyperactive comedian” Kevin Bishop.
Several called Bishop’s performance – in which he plays Sam, an underemployed actor answering the phone in the basement of a fashionable restaurant, as well as everyone who calls him during one shift – a “tour de force”. Hitchings described a “virtuoso performance” as he “switches at breakneck speed between different roles” – like, Paul Taylor suggested, “some berserk high precision identity crisis”. Daisy Bowie-Sell (Time Out) described a piece “absolutely packed” with “odd, funny, infuriating characters, from celebrities and sheiks to little old rich ladies” into which Bishop’s “face contorts suddenly and magnificently”.
Although some complained of cynicism or lack of warmth in the writing, several highlighted Bishop’s ability to make the central role sympathetic. Hitchings explained: “he reveals puckish and humane qualities that make it hard not to root for him”. Further, “although many of the other characters are slight, Bishop imbues them with either charm or a horrible vitality.”
Hitchings judged the whole “a thunderously funny show that doesn’t have anything startling to say but provides 70 minutes of dizzy entertainment.”
Runs to Nov 15
King Charles III – Wyndham’s Theatre, 4.4-star average
Finally, a short nod in the direction of the West End transfer of the successful Almeida political fantasy, which was dubbed by Caroline McGinn (Time Out) as “Shakespeare scripting ‘The Thick of It'” and which is receiving new four- and five-star reviews in its new home.
Theo Bosanquet (What’s On Stage) reassured his readers “it’s lost nothing in transition” from the Almeida, and Dominic Cavendish went further, suggesting “If anything, the show has grown in stature and relevance” while “the plushness of the Wyndham’s better suits the evening’s moments of high ceremony”. Fiona Mountford (ES) agreed, “its themes appear more vital than ever, as Bartlett asks the stark question: who is in ultimate charge of our country?” She judged it “undoubtedly one of the most stimulating plays of the year”.
Runs to Jan 31